Jerusalem — About 20 years ago, an infant girl (“Nina,” a pseudonym) from an Orthodox family underwent a conversion in New York that, by Orthodox American standards, was and still is beyond reproach.
The three converting rabbis, whose names The Jewish Week has withheld so as not to harm their reputations, are highly respected figures in the mainstream Orthodox Jewish world, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
But that hasn’t stopped Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or Israel’s Ministry of Interior from questioning the conversion, evidently because it took place in a synagogue-based beit din (rabbinical court) that did not meet on a regular basis, and not in an external beit din dedicated solely to conversions, The Jewish Week has learned.
This despite the fact that “historically, there were only isolated conversion courts in North America,” according to Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Jerusalem-based advocacy organization, ITIM, helps people navigate the Israeli government bureaucracy often related to personal-status issues.
North American conversions “almost always took place in the context of the local synagogue,” Farber said.
Farber, who with ITIM is fighting for Nina and several other converts to be recognized as Jewish by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior — which has sole authority to grant permanent residency status and citizenship — said she has been waiting almost a year, since she moved to Israel.
“The Rabbinate has not recognized her conversion,” wrote Sabine Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, in reply to a query from The Jewish Week. She would not elaborate.
Farber said the unwillingness by both the Interior Ministry and Chief Rabbinate to trust Nina’s three converting rabbis is a harbinger of worse things to come.
“It makes it clear that the Rabbinate,” which the ministry consulted in this case, “plans to review almost every Orthodox conversion ever performed in the U.S.” — should the convert wish to live or be married in Israel.
American Orthodox rabbis “ought to be up in arms over this latest development and formulating a strategy for how to address this latest round of disenfranchisement,” Farber said.
The agencies’ refusals are especially galling, Farber said, given that ITIM sued the Interior Ministry in Israel’s High Court in 2011 and ultimately extracted a written commitment from the ministry that it would not to consult the Rabbinate on issues relating to aliyah except in “rare circumstances.”
This isn’t one of those circumstances, Farber said.
“They committed to the courts and to the Knesset that the Rabbinate wouldn’t be involved, and now they’ve backed out of their agreement,” Farber noted.
As The Jewish Week first reported several years ago, Israel’s increasingly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate stopped automatically recognizing Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora.
Although shocked and insulted by the Rabbinate’s questioning of their authority, the American Orthodox rabbinical establishment conceded at the time that not every rabbi who performed a conversion was a recognized expert in the field.
Subsequently, the New York-based RCA, the pre-eminent membership organization of Orthodox rabbis, established the kind of network of regional conversion courts that the Rabbinate oversees in Israel.
According to the RCA’s website, the current regional conversion courts “should in no way affect the status of conversions performed prior to its inception.
“All those who were converted properly in the past in accordance with the dictates of halacha should be aware that the status of their conversions is unchanged,” the website continues. “If an individual is concerned that his or her conversion may not be recognized, he or she may contact the Beth Din of America for assistance.”
While the Rabbinate promised years ago to contact the RCA/Beth Din of America if it had questions about a conversion, it apparently failed to do so in Nina’s case and others.
“Had we known about this earlier, we might have been able to communicate with our colleagues in Israel to ensure [the questions] were resolved,” said Rabbi Goldin. He added that he was alerted to Nina’s case by one of her converting rabbis, who was informed about the Rabbinate’s indecision by The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Goldin said that when the Rabbinate requests the RCA’s/BDA’s input “we identify the rabbis as individuals who are part of our system and who we are familiar with.”
In the past, when inquiries have come in “it has been a fairly pro forma process by which those conversions have then been accepted in Israel,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Not knowing this particular case, I’m surprised there is a problem and believe it can and should be solved.”
Even when a conversion is ultimately recognized, Rabbi Goldin said, it is “extremely hurtful” when the reputation of a rabbi or the Jewishness of a convert is questioned.
Rabbi Goldin emphasized that the rabbis listed on Nina’s conversion document “are certainly rabbis who I trust implicitly and whose conversions I would not question.” He also expressed “great respect” for Rabbi Farber and his efforts.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat and former rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, vouched not only for the rabbis in Nina’s case but for Nina’s family as well.
“It defies the imagination that this conversion should be questioned,” he said
Rabbi Riskin said Nina’s parents, whom he has known for decades, are “Orthodox Jews, but more to the point, the rabbis who converted her are upstanding Orthodox rabbis, one of them being one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbinical leaders in the United States.”
When the Israeli Rabbinate and Ministry of the Interior “impugn the integrity” of major Orthodox rabbinical voices in the diaspora, “it destroys the very fabric of Israel-disapora relations and the biblical commandments to love the convert,” Rabbi Riskin said.
Several American Orthodox rabbis were reluctant to speak to The Jewish Week, presumably out of fear that confronting the Rabbinate could inflame tensions and hurt the converts.
But Rabbi Marc Angel, founder and director Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, had this to say: “At a time when the Jewish world desperately needs visionary, compassionate leadership in the area of conversions, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment has adopted regressive policies that are in fact anti-halachic. In their zeal to maintain power and authority, the Rabbanut in Israel questions or negates perfectly valid conversions done by Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. This not only is a deep affront to these rabbis, it is a cruel treatment of halachic converts and their families.”
Nina, whose heartbroken U.S.-based parents asked that her name be withheld out of fears she and their family could be stigmatized, said the Rabbinate’s refusal thus far to recognize her as Jewish “has hurt my family.”
“My [siblings] went through the same conversion process. If they were to come to Israel it’s possible they and their children may not be recognized as Jewish. I would be devastated if my future children weren’t considered Jewish.”
Nina, who attended Jewish camps and Jewish day school, who went to Poland with March of the Living and calls her father every Friday before Shabbat for a blessing, said it has been “shocking” and “devastating” to be recognized as a Jew everywhere but in Israel.
ITIM’s Farber, who since being alerted in recent weeks to the young convert’s plight has been in almost daily contact with Nina, the Rabbinate and Ministry of the Interior, said the ministry’s decision to consult the Rabbinate on many cases — despite a signed agreement to do so in only “rare” cases — as well as the Rabbinate’s treatment of converts, “needs to be stopped immediately.”
Farber said the actions of both government bodies “is a slap in the face” to the autonomy of diaspora Jewish communities and their leadership.
Once formed, the new government in Israel “presents an unprecedented opportunity for us to clarify once and for all the Who is a Jew issue,” Farber said “and it’s central to ITIM’s agenda in the coming months.
“We’ve already turned to the Jewish Agency and will turn to the Knesset and if necessary the High Court of Justice in order to help the thousands of converts this affects,” Farber said.